THE ULTIMATE DIRTY MARTINI: Olives 7 Ways
Did you ever contemplate the awfulness of a cloudy, way to salty Dirty Martini? Not a decent drink at all. So why should any person order it, while everybody’s talking about balance and harmony between the ingredients. Naren Young about the best Dirty Martini you’ll ever have had.
Let me begin by saying that I hate Dirty Martinis. I’ve often called them the ‘devil’s urine’ (probably stolen from Angus Winchester referring to olives as the ‘devil’s testicles’). We’re a crude bunch, us bartenders. Strange thing is, I love olives. I mean I really, really love olives. So what gives? Why do I despise this drink so much?
The liquid lack of thoughts
Much of the problem for me is that it is one of the most thoughtless drinks in existence; one that is always made with an overly salted, industrial brine that has been locked away in a can or jar for what could have been years. The brine doesn’t run the risk of going bad. It already is bad.
I’ve never bothered to add vermouth to my Dirty Martinis because really, what’s the point? And I used to always shake them because again, the drink under its current guise is beyond salvation and the people drinking them probably couldn’t give a toss either whether it’s stirred, shaken or strained through someone’s armpit. The Dirty Martini is what it is, right? It’s not a contemplative drink by any stretch and therefore it really shouldn’t be given much thought beyond that.
A man on a mission…
This would, however, become the very reason why I obsessed over this drink for two years, trying to create something respectable, thoughtful and dare I say it, elegant. Instead of turning my back on this drink that I could just as easily ignore for the rest of my life – or just continue to reluctantly make them – I decided to go on a mission. I was determined to create the best Dirty Martini the world had ever seen and with god as my witness, I think I might have pulled it off.
Two years might seem like a preposterous, even maniacal amount of time to workshop a cocktail. And it is. But I do enjoy a good challenge and this one seemed like a doozy. I like the idea of taking a drink that is almost always made terribly (and without any respect for quality) and trying to turn it into something remarkable by breaking it down, perhaps re-imagining it and, most importantly, creating something more beautiful and balanced than the sum of its parts.
The resurrection of the olive
It was no different than my desire to create what I would eventually call the ‘Olives 7 Ways’. But where to begin? My issues with the drink itself were with that awful brine we spoke of earlier and its overly liberal use. I was determined to simply pour this down the sink (where it belongs) but the olives still needed to sit in some liquid solution otherwise they’d dry out. I also believe that a true Martini is not a Martini unless it contains vermouth. Voila! I’d soak them in vermouth, not that this is anything cutting edge or even new. Bartenders have been doing this for decades. But it was a start.
I had a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head but the earliest practical experiments began with good friend and distiller Allen Katz, who owns the New York Distilling Company, based in Williamsburg. I wanted to create an olive distillate and I knew that he had worked some experiments on a small scale still before. This seemed like an ideal collaboration.
We ran a few test batches and finally settled on re-distilling a neutral grain spirit (the same one he uses for his two gins) infused with a lot of finely diced green cerignola olives. The yield was frustratingly small and the entire process was like watching paint dry. What came out had only soft olive nuances. But again, we were making positive progress and the excitement was building.
Then I reached out to Zach Feldman, a cocktail enthusiast and writer who makes various bitters under the name Bitters Old Men. He had previously made a couple of custom flavors for me in the past and I asked if he’d make an olive bitters this time. He used olives from Spain, Greece, France and Italy, adding bitter components from wormwood and gentian root and the results were awesome.
Next, I wanted to create an olive shrub and put this in the hands of Brett Hughes – the bar manager at New York gin den, Madam Geneva – using the same olives as we used in the distillate. This, I hoped, would give the drink some body and texture while also adding some needed acid from the vinegar component.
The oil makes the last twist
Saxon + Parole bar manager Masahiro Urushido and I tested out a bunch of different ratios together and settled on the recipe below, which is what eventually launched and has received some wonderful press. Like all Martinis at Saxon + Parole, this one is served in a frozen, small, vintage cocktail glass, with the remainder served in a small carafe sitting on crushed ice. It is garnished with drops of olive oil, which float on the surface of the drink and it is given a final flourish with a spray of the olive bitters, adding a delightful wash of saline aroma.
It is served alongside a small bowl of mixed olives that are marinated in the exact same botanicals that are used in the production of Perry’s Tot gin (juniper, coriander seeds, dried lemon peel, dried orange peel, dried grapefruit peel, whole green cardamom pods, whole star anise, cinnamon, angelica, wildflower honey), a thoughtful touch that ties it all together. And there you have it – ‘Olives 7 Ways’. As you can see by this photo, it is a spectacular looking cocktail that is also thoughtful, balanced, restrained and indeed elegant. You’ll never look at a Dirty Martini the same way again. Sorry.